Black Tie White Noise

October 17, 2012

Black Tie White Noise.
Black Tie White Noise (video).
Black Tie White Noise (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (3rd Floor US radio mix).
Black Tie White Noise (club mix).
Black Tie White Noise (Here Come Da Jazz mix).
Black Tie White Noise (extended remix).

A week after they were (first) married, Bowie and Iman flew to Los Angeles for some apartment shopping. Their first night in LA, 29 April 1992, was to be marked by a celebratory dinner. Instead, dinner was cancelled and the couple stayed in their hotel, watching from their windows as the city burned. “The whole thing felt like nothing less than a prison break,” Bowie said the following year to Rolling Stone. “By people who have been caged up for too long with no reason.”

The very JG Ballard image of a rich man standing in his hotel suite, watching a riot unfold in the city below and feeling vaguely euphoric about it, would seem ripe inspiration for someone who’d once written “Panic In Detroit.” Instead, Bowie’s L.A. riots song was “Black Tie White Noise,” a track teetering between dark sarcasm and watery humanism. Though saved from complete disaster by its lyric’s occasional self-awareness and harshness, “Black Tie” drowned this acerbity in a glossy jumble of “contemporary” R&B sounds, the backdrop to Bowie’s duet with a mediocrity, Al B. Sure!.

“Black Tie” started as Bowie’s attack on the pop tradition of interracial-brotherhood songs, from “Black and White” to “Ebony and Ivory” to the song it seemed to be directly answering, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” “Black Tie,” while inspired by a racial crisis, denies any wisdom, its most coherent point being that songs of its ilk (Bowie mentions by name “We Are the World,” “We Shall Overcome” and”What’s Going On” (and he weirdly drags “I Got You Babe” into these ranks)) have nothing to say about such crises, that they’re instead cheap slogans meant to make “white liberals” feel better, as Bowie told the NME in 1993. “[Black people] have their own ideas of how they can improve their lot, and they couldn’t give a fuck what we think. They don’t want our advice.” (This seems like Bowie had just seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which had opened in late 1992.) In another 1993 interview, Bowie was scathing about how such songs strive to find “white sameness within everybody” as a means of racial reconciliation.

This emphasis on chastising messengers suggests that Bowie, having long lost any contact with the street, especially the American street, could only approach life via songs. But he was aware of where he stood. In 1993, Arsenio Hall asked Bowie if he and Iman, as an interracial couple, had ever experienced any hostility. Bowie was blunt: never, because the two of them had been established as celebrities well before they’d married. They already had public personae, so their wedding was more akin to the merger of Warner and Time Inc. than it was the potentially “troublesome” union of an African woman and a white British man. To consider their marriage as a typical interracial one would be, as in Bowie’s opening line, “getting [your] facts from a Benetton ad.”

That said, Bowie was playing with his marriage as a symbol. The song’s title is a vague reference to their wedding gear, as well as a comment on their personae (Iman: elegance, Bowie: abrasive music). As he was envisioning having children with his new wife (and he would), it’s fair to say he was considering the future that his bi-racial child would inherit. He finally had some stake in the game, and he was optimistic in an apocalyptic way, believing that a series of further L.A.-style riots were needed before anything changed. “There’s going to be an awful lot of antagonism before there’s any real move forward,” he told Record Collector. Or as he had Al B. Sure! sing: “there’ll be some blood, no doubt about it.”

However, these were all just public statements. “Black Tie” as a finished song, as a title track, discarded the troubling and contrary notions that Bowie was voicing to the press in favor of an awkward and at times tasteless production, one apparently meant to bury the song’s fatalism in a vein of pop R&B so lifeless that it could have won a Grammy.

“Black Tie” as a composition was already an ungainly bird, alternating between pairs of verses set in a vague E-flat major and a longer pair of bridges (interrupted by an 8-bar break over the verse chords) that establish the song in A-flat (with Eb revealed as the dominant chord). (The only curveball is an out-of-key F-sharp minor seventh chord that transitions verses to bridges and vice versa). Over this Nile Rodgers slathered a paste of sounds: a jawboning wah-wah guitar, Lester Bowie’s ebullient trumpet fills, over-mixed drums, a quavering piano ostinato, washes of synthesizer and Tonight-style supper-club backing vocals (their staccato “black! tie! white! noise!” is the closest “Black Tie” comes to a hook, and it’s preferable to Bowie’s descending croak of “no-oi-oi-se” or his would-be-reggae chant of “cranking out” in the coda).

Then there was Al B. Sure!,* to whom Bowie generously gave the opening verse and who got many of the song’s allegedly dramatic moments (and who handled the lion’s share of the high notes, like the peak A-flat on “Lord Lord” in the bridge). Sure!’s performance is ultimately a blank, with little sense of personality imparted. As Bowie said he spent ages coaching Sure! as to how he wanted the vocals to sound, it’s possible that Bowie just shoehorned him in too tightly. It didn’t help that Sure! was given lines like “I’ve got a face, not just my race.

The latter line is in the bridges, which were apparently meant to be the emotional peaks of the song, with the two singers facing off on a street as though it’s the last minutes of Reservoir Dogs. But whatever nuance and fatalism Bowie tried to impart in his lyric is rubbished by the vocals, which border on the comical (“you won’t kill me! you won’t kill me NO!” or Bowie’s singsong “I won-der WHY, I wond-er WHY“) and was finished off by Rodgers’ production, with its swooning high synth lines and occasional murmurs of Bowie’s saxophone.

The break (starting at 2:29) has the best singing on the track, in service of the song’s apparently straight-faced “We Are the World” moment, the cynicism giving way to a heartfelt plea for togetherness. Bowie said that he didn’t want to make another “Ebony and Ivory,” that his song was meant to be a bitter riposte to such treacle, but maybe that’s all he really had in him.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as the second single from the record it titled, (Arista/BMG 74321 (#36 UK)). Some 15-plus remixes were made of this song! Please see the Illustrated DB site’s entry for a complete breakdown. Of the mixes linked above, the “3rd Floor” mix was first issued on a promo CD for US radio and later was included on the BTWN reissue; the “club mix,” the Extended Remix and the Here Come da Jazz mixes (the latter uses Bowie’s “crankin-out” coda chant as its central hook) were on the UK 12″ promo (BLACK 1), with the latter included on the BTWN reissue.

* Sure!, a man with one of the more ridiculous stage names in pop history, was an occasional chart presence at the turn of the Nineties, with one top 10 hit (“Nite and Day”) and a few R&B #1s (“Off on Your Own,” “Right Now”). By the time “Black Tie” was released in late ’93, he was cooked: he didn’t release another LP or single until 2009.

Top: Dark Sevier, “Los Angeles,” April 1992.


Real Cool World

September 17, 2012

Real Cool World (single mix, video).
Real Cool World (soundtrack LP).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Overture).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Thing #2).

Prologue: Three Scenes From a Public Life in the Early Nineties

11 November 1991: Tin Machine are en route to the Brixton Academy for their last UK gig. Bowie has asked the bus driver to take a “scenic” way to get there, so that he can see what’s become of the neighborhood of his early childhood. The bus goes along Stansfield Road. Eric Schermerhorn, the Machine’s rhythm guitarist, notices Bowie quietly weeping. “It’s a miracle,” Bowie says. “I probably should have been an accountant. I don’t know how this all happened.”

20 April 1992: Bowie plays the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. He sings “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox, who’s dressed as a mingle of his discarded selves. He plays saxophone on “All the Young Dudes.” As Ian Hunter lurches into the song, Bowie sings along with him, not into the mike but absently, murmuring into the air, as though he’s only now recalling the words that he’d written for Hunter, the words which are the only reason Hunter’s on stage this evening. Later in the performance, Bowie pulls Mick Ronson over to him, in a slight echo of the Top of the Pops “Starman” moment. But they’re only sharing a private joke here.

Bowie plays “Heroes” with Ronson, who uses an E-bow to mimic Robert Fripp’s keening lines, and for a moment you can imagine some alternate 1977 where Bowie and Ronson had made “Heroes.” Ronson will be dead in a year. Bowie thanks the crowd, sinks to his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Some guy yells “whoo-hoo” after Bowie intones “who art in heaven,” then Wembley seemingly holds its breath until he finishes. Bowie’s friend, a playwright named Craig, had slipped into an AIDS-related coma the day before—he would die two days after the show. Bowie had the bad taste to remind a stadium that the concert they’ve been screaming at is supposed to be a requiem. He later said offering the prayer was a spontaneous decision (Brian May: “I remember thinking that it would have been nice if he’d warned me about that”) and called it the most “rock and roll” episode of his latter-day career. Call it a humble moment of submission or galling pantomime, it’s one of the last moments that the general public will recall from Bowie’s life.

6 June 1992: Bowie marries Iman for a second time, in Florence (they had been married by a magistrate in Lausanne in April). He grants Hello! magazine exclusive rights to the coverage, which results in a 23-page spread. The second wedding is a public art installation: two celebrities, the groom’s teeth newly capped, pledging their troth to flashing cameras and to the sound of screaming fans, massed outside the St. James Episcopal Church.* In the Hello! photographs, the couple are stunningly beautiful mannequins; the wedding party is a taxidermist’s masterpiece.

Brian Eno attends. “It was a lovely wedding,” he said later. “And I was totally confused.” During his stay, Bowie plays Eno a tape of what he calls his “wedding songs.”

We used to laugh about Nile Rodgers and then it’s funny he goes back and works with him…Nile Rodgers is a very talented guy. [Bowie’s] idea to work with him was to recapture what they had, but that’s bullshit. You can never go home again.

Hunt Sales.

We’d put all this effort into trying to get rid of the stuff that followed Let’s Dance to change expectations and allow David to be an artist again. So I was irritated by the notion, but, for whatever reason, they decided to do it.

Reeves Gabrels.

These quotes can seem like grumblings of a pair of discarded suitors. But let’s grant them the argument: what had been the point of the abrasive Tin Machine records and tours, of the grand public funeral of “Sound + Vision,” if the next move was just to make Let’s Dance II?

Bowie’s decision to reunite with Nile Rodgers to make a “mainstream” pop album was in some part financial. Bowie no longer had an EMI contract, he’d funded the “It’s My Life” tour out of his own pocket, and he was a married man now, buying houses around the world for the setting of his new domestic life. And he admitted to friends that he missed it sometimes, regretted he was no longer part of the pop conversation, missed hearing himself on the radio. He got a new contract with Savage Records that was predicated on delivering a radio-ready album.

But Black Tie White Noise, though it briefly hit #1 in the UK and produced Bowie’s last Top 10 UK hit, was a global dud, much to Rodgers’ and Savage’s frustration (though the latter was in great part to blame, as we’ll see). Bowie had steeled himself to become a mainstream entertainer again, then had seemed to balk in the process, sabotaging his own compromises. He consigned the best pop song of the sessions to a CD bonus track and left another possible hit on the shelf, not to revive it for a decade; he filled half the record with instrumentals and covers.

So BTWN is one of the stranger albums of Bowie’s life: a pop record that seems intent on denying itself; an album jammed full of ghosts and memories, with a restless creative spirit running through it, along with a seeming indifference to quality at times; it’s a funeral album as much as a wedding album, its moods ranging from glossy pap to uxoriousness on a global scale to ham-handed public commentary to a studied alienation. Bowie would alter his voice beyond recognition, sing on some tracks as a seeming parody of his public self, sing on others as though he’s desperately answering a question someone had posed years before. He seemed to have trawled through his past and picked up whatever came to hand: it’s an album on which not only Mick Ronson and Mike Garson reappear but also the Tonight-era Frank Simms and Phillipe Saisse. While making BTWN Bowie seemed incredibly happy, a man sunk into domestic bliss, and one who also was vaguely disgusted with having to recompose himself, yet again, as a public figure.

Bowie had been writing the BTWN material throughout late 1991 and 1992. The first track that emerged from a desultory series of sessions (Rodgers later groaned that where Let’s Dance took three weeks to make, BTWN “took a year”) was “Real Cool World,” a song written for Cool World, Ralph Bakshi’s disastrous animated film, a crass rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, complete with a cartoon temptress (Kim Basinger’s “Holli Wood”) and human-toon interactions (a bewildered Gabriel Byrne and a sadly game Brad Pitt). While the title obviously came from the movie’s title, there’s a chance Bowie was also referencing the Greatest Show on Earth hit of the same name from 1970.

“Real Cool World” was a try-out session to see if Rodgers and Bowie could work together again (Rodgers had just finished a new Chic record, Chic-ism, and was in the mood for reunions), and the result was enough to convince Bowie to have Rodgers run the album sessions, which would stretch into late 1992, alternating between Bowie’s home base in Switzerland and Rodgers’ at the Power Station in New York.

The appearance of “Real Cool World” was well received at the time by the likes of Billboard, as it showed that the “real” Bowie (there’s always a “real” Bowie who’s gone missing) was back, not the scowling man who had been hiding out in some rock band. Along with Bowie’s sudden return to celebrity A-list status with his wedding, “Cool World” was a sign that Bowie intended to be a commercial force again, although the single charted modestly.

And “Cool World” did sound as though Bowie had gone to sleep around 1985 and had woken up seven years later at the Power Station, lying on a stack of R&B and house promo CDs. There was a crispness and a buoyancy to the track, a vibrancy that Bowie’s music had lacked for ages: if he was playing Rip Van Winkle, he was a sprightly one at least. Rodgers’ intro alone, with its mesh of percussive synthesizers (a hi-hat pattern in the left channel that’s soon drowned out by snares), two syncopated sequencer lines and a third synthesizer keeping on a high root note, and a staggered introduction of bass and Bowie’s saxophone, was the sharpest production that Bowie’d had in a decade. There were instrumental callbacks in the mix—a truncated version of the stepwise descending “Laughing Gnome” line on synthesizer, and another synth fill suggestive of “Speed of Life” (the former appearing towards the close of each verse, the latter midway through).

The track’s B minor verses are hooked to a lower-register Bowie vocal (doubled and tripled in some phrases, with what sounds like a synth bass effect applied to the lowest harmony) that’s a series of progressively sinking phrases, with Bowie plummeting to a low B on the last “world” of the verse, while the chorus, even with a cheery “do-Do-do-do-do” refrain, remains muted in sentiment. Only in the bridge/refrains, which shift to a bright C major, does Bowie seem to rouse himself, but even then he hardly ventures above a middle C. It suits the tentativeness of the lyric, in which the singer finds himself in love but can’t bring himself to fully accept it, trying to verify that what he’s feeling is real. “Color me doubtful,” he murmurs towards the end, still listening for footsteps: it’s a sentiment that could apply to the album that he was about to make.

Recorded ca. spring-June 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released in August 1992 as Warner W0127 (#53, UK) and on Songs From the Cool World OST (the latter is an impressively hip soundtrack for DB to be associated with in this era, including the Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea,” My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz”, and some early Moby tracks.)

The BTWN tracks have a bewildering set of remixes and edits. So for “Cool World” there is: a) the single edit (4:14), used for the video; b) the album cut, used for the closing credits of Cool World and found on the OST—this version later appeared on the 2-CD reissue of BTWN; c) Satoshi Tomiie’s five remixes, including “Cool Dub Thing” Nos. 1 and 2, the “Cool Thing” 12″ club mix and “Cool Dub Overture,” which were on the CD single; d) an instrumental version used for the B-side of a few 7″ singles.

* Commonly known as “the American Church” in Florence. It’s a colorful place. The church’s first rector was Pierce Connelly, who abandoned his wife and children to become a Catholic priest, only later to change his mind, becoming an Episcopalian, and then suing his wife (who’d become a nun in the meantime) for “restitution of conjugal rights.” (from Alta Macadam’s Americans in Florence.) Sinclair Lewis described weekly services there in World So Wide as a hour when assembled US expats “are betrayed into being American again…[though with] their flippant unfaith to their lean and bitter mother, America, there is yet more faith than in their zest for Europe, their opulent mistress.”

Sources: first anecdote is from Trynka’s Starman. The Sales quote is from Spitz’s biography, the Gabrels from Trynka’s.

Top: Shimon and Lindemann, “Hutch With His Bowling Ball,” Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 1992; Bowie and Lennox at Wembley, April 1992.


Go Now

September 10, 2012

Go Now (Bessie Banks, 1964).
Go Now (The Moody Blues, 1965).
Go Now (Wings, 1976).
Go Now (Tin Machine, live, 1992).

At one point Bowie said Tin Machine would also be a three-album project. Does that mean there’s only one more record to go?

“He said that this was a three-album thing,” Tony Sales says. “It will take three albums, possibly, for people to start to understand where we’re coming from.”

Said Bowie last year: “I think our intention is to stay together as long as all of us have the same enthusiasm that we have now. I think once it starts to feel like a job, I think that’s the last thing we want to feel.

Roger Catlin, “Everything’s Hunky Dory With Bowie’s Tin Machine,” Hartford Courant, 24 November 1991.

After months of sporadic rehearsals, warm-up gigs and occasionally baffling television appearances, Tin Machine began what would be its last tour in October 1991. It was a gradual trek westward, starting in Europe (Bowie took time off to propose to Iman in Paris), then going on to Britain in early November. At the last UK show, at the Brixton Academy, Bowie was struck in the eye by a pack of cigarettes that someone had hurled on stage, a preview of the even ghastlier eye injury he’d receive a decade later.

The Machine was in America by mid-November. As with the European shows, the band generally played clubs, including two of Connecticut’s finest: Toad’s Place and the Sting.* It was both a reaction to the arenas of the Sound + Vision tour and a blunt acceptance that Tin Machine generally couldn’t fill a 10,000-person hall. “There’s a fair amount of improvisation in terms of how we approach some songs. And that wouldn’t hold well in a large place—particularly at this stage,” Bowie said at the time. “First of all, the people don’t know the material at all. I don’t know how many people would be interested in coming to see a Tin Machine show in an arena. I’d imagine a lot might come along hoping I’d be doing old songs or something. We don’t want that feeling at all.”

On 20 December 1991, the band was in Seattle, playing the Paramount Theatre, for its final US gig. By then, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had conquered MTV (and would peak at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following month), Seattle was the center of a gold rush of record labels and promoters, and the Machine was irrelevant, yesterday’s insurrectionists, playing to a less-than-full house.

By then there were other tensions and fractures. The tour was getting middling to scathing reviews (Greg Kot, on the Chicago show: “there was nothing noble about a group of graying rock ‘n’ rollers collectively working through a midlife crisis on stage and then having people pay to watch it.”) And Bowie, who still didn’t have a solo record contract, was essentially funding the tour himself. “A small room packed with people is a cool thing, but it’s not economical,” he recalled to Kot in 2002. “I was paying for that band to work, and I was gradually going through all my bread, and it became time to stop. I had to build my audience back up again.

And allegedly Hunt Sales was at low ebb, regularly using drugs (see “Sorry”), which soured the group’s camaraderie and made Bowie in particular agitated. “That really destroyed the band, more than anything else,” he later recalled. It got to a situation where it was just intolerable. You didn’t know if the guy was going to be dead in the morning…We just couldn’t cope.”**

The Machine played a final leg, a short trip to Japan in January and early February 1992. The last song that they played at the Budokan, on 17 February 1992, was the first song that they’d recorded, “Heaven’s in Here,” which Bowie now infused with bits of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” and Perry Como’s “Dream On, Little Dreamer.” There had been vague talk about cutting a third Tin Machine album, about going on another tour in a year or so, but Tokyo was the end, and they knew it.

So there’s a poignancy in Tony Sales’ version of “Go Now,” which he played throughout the tour. Tony Sales tends to be forgotten amidst the discussions of Hunt’s antics, Gabrels’ guitar playing and the various doings of their charismatic lead singer, but he was a fine bassist and R&B singer for whom Tin Machine was the payoff of a professional life of near-misses. It’s easy to imagine that he took the band’s demise the hardest.

“Go Now” was a hit for the Moody Blues in 1965, though it was also notable, in retrospect, for being another sign that American R&B was being supplanted by British copies (while it had been a minor R&B hit for Bessie Banks the year before, the Moodys’ version all but erased the original from common memory). A waltz built on a set of descending piano thirds, “Go Now” was built so sturdily that it could withstand a good deal of emoting, though it worked best when sung simply and moodily, as by Banks or Denny Laine. So it’s a shame the Machine yet again couldn’t resist overkill, as their performances of “Go Now” were often garish overextended affairs, the song flogged to the point of being unrecognizable. The song’s title proved too apt a target, with people in the audience occasionally yelling “yeah, go now!” back at Sales. It was a fittingly heartfelt, frustrating and chaotic close to Tin Machine, and here we’ll let the band lie in peace.

“Go Now” was performed throughout the “It’s My Life” tour.

An endnote on Oy Vey, Baby: This live album, issued in July 1992, is arguably the most unloved release in the entire Bowie catalog, having failed to chart in the US or the UK upon release. It’s currently out of print. Composed of tracks taken from the Chicago, Boston, New York, Tokyo and Sapporo gigs, it’s actually a decent live document of a band that, even as they were slowly disintegrating, was still putting on tight shows. “Amazing,” from Chicago, is better than the studio version; the Tokyo “Goodbye Mr. Ed” has Bowie in fine voice and Gabrels on form. The asinine title, a Hunt Sales jibe at the latest U2 album, didn’t help the record, nor did the inclusion of a 12-minute “Heaven’s in Here” and an eight-minute “Stateside.” The mix was mainly the work of Reeves Gabrels, who described it as “deconstructionist R&B,” and who later said it was his favorite Tin Machine album. The video release (also out of print) is a wholly different beast, being entirely taken from the 24 October 1991 show in Hamburg.

* As I was a teenager in Connecticut in the late Eighties, I’d regularly gone to these clubs. As fate would have it, I was living in Boston by the time the Machine came to them.

** This quote, the most open that Bowie ever got about the Sales situation, is found in both Nicholas Pegg’s book as well as Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy. In both cases, the interview it’s taken from is not cited and I could find no original print source for it. I’m assuming it’s from a TV/radio interview, most likely the BBC’s “Golden Years” radio doc from 2000.

Photos: video stills from one of the last Tin Machine shows, Tokyo, 5-6 February 1992.